As an England Test series rolls around, you can normally guarantee three things.
First, there will be heated debates on selection, usually with a backdrop of injury uncertainty, particularly in the bowling department.
Second, a question will arise that seems to be as old as time itself. How much longer can England’s venerable strike duo, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, keep going?
And thirdly, one of that pair will be to the fore as journalists look for ready news and a colourful quote or two. More often than not, it will be Stuart Broad that obliges.
In England’s 2020 bubble-based summer, Broad left no one in any doubt how he felt about being “rested” for the first test. A glowering and brooding presence at the Rose Bowl, he had pronounced himself “frustrated angry and gutted”.
But, boy, did he let his bowling do the talking for him, once he was unleashed. Six wickets in the first Test at Old Trafford, and then 10 wickets including six for 31 in the third. Not to mention a highly entertaining 62 with the bat. It was form he carried into the first Test in Sri Lanka, bagging three wickets at just 11.33 apiece.
When England got to India, Broad was there again, aiming a very firm dig in the direction of arch Twitter provocateur Michael Vaughan who had vocally criticised the timing of England’s first Test declaration.
Which brings us to the forthcoming summer, where England unusually find themselves, initially at least, cast as the support act rather than the main event. The two Tests against New Zealand will be served as an amuse bouche before the World Test Championship final entrée. And its’s New Zealand, not England, who have reserved their table for that showpiece against England’s other summer visitors, India.
Once again, there is a distinct frisson of indignation in Stuart Broad’s well-publicised pre-series pronouncements, but don’t judge him too harshly for that. There is, as ever, more than a grain of truth underlying the emotional sound bites.
First, he has warned against Test caps being given out “free and cheap” as a result of England’s controversial rest-and-rotation policy. England, shorn either by injury or IPL bubble fatigue of regulars like Jofra Archer, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Sam Curran, Jonny Bairstow and Chris Woakes, will certainly take the opportunity to test their squad depth. James Bracey and Ollie Robinson are both likely to get a chance to prove their mettle in an Ashes year.
Broad, regretting what he felt was a lack of communication from former Ed Smith, the defenestrated national selector, said he would accept being rested by Chris Silverwood, the head coach, if “it was explained in a good way”
Nevertheless, he insisted: ‘Part of the reason I don’t play white-ball cricket anymore is so I’m fit and available for Test cricket and fresh when I’m needed.
“Test caps aren’t there to be given out free and cheap. We work very hard for the opportunity to play Test cricket and you have to earn your stripes.”
Over the past year there were several occasions when England have left one of Broad or Anderson out of their Test side when both bowlers have been fit, a move team management justified by the need to maintain the duo’s fitness and to give other bowlers experience in taking the new ball.
Of course, there will be those who say that Broad’s white-ball record would not justify selection, so his Test specialism is by default as much as design. There is possibly a grain of truth there, but Broad is also speaking for all Test cricket supporters who believe that the five-day format is the pinnacle of the game, to be revered and preserved rather than side-lined when a T20 World Cup is around the corner. Perhaps bubbling beneath the surface is a hint of IPL envy as all England’s IPL participants are unavailable, even those who barely played in the tournament.
But you sense that Broad’s disappointment is real and that he feels some England selections are devaluing the format. He has worked long and hard at his craft. He is right to demand the same of all those who don the England shirt.
Likewise, he has left us in little doubt how he felt about Ed Smith. Choosing his words with care, Broad said he was “looking forward to life under a new England regime given the former national selector probably didn’t rate me”.
He added: “A lot of people have bosses who don’t rate them as much as other people and I think he was mine.”
It would be easy to interpret this as petulance, given how Broad was rested and Smith’s man management style, one suspects, contributed to his removal. But Broad will also have been a first-hand witness to the travails of Moeen Ali in India.
Smith’s tenure as national selector will be remembered by many for advancements made in data management, but some clumsy shortcomings in people management, as the recent winter tours were subject to criticism over the rotation policy that prioritised Twenty20 as Joe Root’s Test side suffered a chastening 3-1 defeat in India.
Once again, Broad may have more reason to complain than others, but if he feels the Test format is devalued, he will be quick to speak in its defence.
The England seamer has made it crystal clear that he was ready to be an ever-present in this season’s seven Tests at home to New Zealand (two) and India (five) and, as the clock ticks on inexorably in a summer that will see his 35th birthday, who can blame him for making a stance to play with the best against the best?